Frederick Winslow Taylor Essay - Critical Essays

Taylor, Frederick Winslow


Frederick Winslow Taylor 1856-1915

American efficiency engineer and nonfiction writer.

A mechanical engineer by trade, Taylor is generally considered the father of scientific management. Dissatisfied with what he perceived as a lack of efficiency among American workers, Taylor began a series of time management studies that resulted in his best-known work, The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), in which he set forth a system of efficient work that eventually was adopted by managers throughout the United States, most notably Henry Ford, who used Taylor's principles in his automobile factories. As the ideas outlined in the Principles spread from the workplace to the larger cultural sphere, Taylorism became one of the most influential social forces in twentieth-century American thought, leading ultimately to the modern phenomena of industrial engineering and mass production.

Biographical Information

Taylor was born into a wealthy Philadelphia family in 1856. His father, Franklin Taylor, was an attorney who later in life devoted his time to writing poetry, while his mother, Emily Annette Winslow, instilled in her son her own strong-willed practicality and independence. Groomed from an early age to study law at Harvard University, Taylor decided against entering his father's profession when his eyesight became troublesome, and instead began work in 1874 at the Enterprise Hydraulics Works, a pump manufacturing company in Philadelphia, where he worked as a pattern maker and machinist. In 1878 Taylor moved on to the Midvale Steel Company, working as a common laborer. In 1884 he gained the position of chief engineer and earned a mechanical engineering degree from Stevens Institute of Technology. Taylor distinguished himself in his early years at Midvale by performing experiments with cutting metals and patenting many inventions. Eventually he turned his attention to the stop-watch time studies and experiments with differential piece rates that would become the basis of his later principles. Taylor left Midvale in 1890 and became general manager at the Manufacturing Investment Company in Philadelphia. Additionally, he worked as an independent engineering consultant and continued patenting his inventions. From 1898 to 1901 Taylor worked as a consultant to the Bethlehem Steel Company in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. There he furthered the development of what he called scientific management, performing numerous time-and-motion studies of workers as well as experiments on optimizing the effectiveness of machinery. Taylor was elected president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in 1906. By then he was devoting most of his time to perfecting his system of management, and in 1910 Taylorism was formally introduced into the American workplace when Taylor gained government contracts to use his system in federal arsenals. Although Taylor had intended his system to ease tensions between employers and workers—because he had measured exactly how much work a person could do in a certain amount of time—he met with extreme opposition from organized labor, which viewed the system as dehumanizing. The issue came to a head in 1911 when workers at the Watertown Arsenal staged a strike. This event resulted in a governmental investigation of scientific management, which concluded that Taylorism was not in the best interest of workers. Business leaders and industrialists nonetheless widely adopted the system of scientific management, in particular Henry Ford, who enthusiastically implemented Taylorism in his automobile factories. The Society to Promote the Science of Management was founded in 1911 to further the cause of Taylorism throughout the industrialized world; after Taylor's death in 1915, the group's name was changed to the Taylor Society to honor what was considered his revolutionary approach to management.

Major Works

Taylor's numerous studies with workers and machinery resulted in his treatise The Principles of Scientific Management. Written as a guide for managers to reorganize the workplace, the Principles delineated a system of worker efficiency based on Taylor's time-and-motion studies and his advancement of the differential piece rate–a method of payment based on a standard rate of time and output. In Taylor's system, work was broken down into minute series of motions performed by each worker, who received detailed instructions and specifications on how to execute each task. Taylor's system accounted for every movement performed throughout the workday and left no room for unforeseen incidents. In this way, the Principles paved the way for the ideal of mass production in industrialized contemporary culture. Taylor originally submitted his Principles to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers; when he received no response, he published the work himself. Wide demand led to the 1911 publication of the work in book form by Harper and Brothers. Taylor's Principles drew heavily from two of his earlier papers, both published by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers: "A Piece-Rate System" (1895)–in which he reported his conclusions on the piece rate method of worker payment–and Shop Management (1903)–which attempted to redefine the managerial structure in factories, largely through the elimination of the position of foreman and its replacement with a planning department broken into highly specialized administrative units.

Critical Reception

Critics are quick to point out that although Taylor's influence was felt in virtually all industrialized nations, and his methods continue to affect contemporary ideas about work, his theories were rarely accepted and adopted in their entirety. Taylor's principles called for extreme specialization among workers, which many managers considered impractical and overly complex. Additionally, organized labor's campaign against Taylorism made some employers hesitant to endorse it; walkouts were common when Taylorism was introduced into factories. Some critics even contend that Taylor's ideas were not entirely original—that he appears to have borrowed heavily from an unpublished manuscript by his associate Morris L. Cooke, and that results of some of his experiments may have been more fiction than fact. Taylor's conservatism, his scorn of labor unions and what he saw as laziness among workers, and his seemingly quixotic search for perfection in the most minuscule details are frequently cited as evidence of his own feelings of inadequacy, and his principles are considered an attempt to impose order wherever he could in the turbulent early years of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, scientific management permeated twentieth-century society as it ushered in a period of mass production and industrialization previously unseen; Taylorism's wide-reaching effects were even satirized in the Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times. Taylorism continues to influence contemporary work, as management theories rooted in Taylor's ideas persist.

Principal Works

"A Piece-Rate System, Being a Step toward a Partial Solution of the Labor Problem" (essay) 1895

Shop Management (essay) 1903

"On the Art of Cutting Metals" (essay) 1907

The Principles of Scientific Management (nonfiction) 1911


Edgar V. O'Daniel (essay date 1912)

SOURCE: "Paying for Alaska," in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, No. 3, September, 1912, pp. 534-536.

[In the following essay, O'Daniel reviews the first edition of The Principles of Scientific Management.]

In his little book [The Principles of Scientific Management], which grew out of a paper prepared for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Mr. Taylor discusses, in a general way, the principles of task management, or, to put it in the words commonly used to describe the author's theme, "efficiency engineering." Although he gives a number of examples of the actual working of the new type of management, he confines his attention for the...

(The entire section is 841 words.)

Milton J. Nadworny (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: Scientific Management and the Unions 1900-1932: A Historical Analysis, Harvard University Press, 1955, 187 p.

[In the following excerpt from his book Scientific Management and the Unions, Nadworny traces the history of theories of scientific management from their roots after the Civil War to the introduction of Taylor's system to American industry and discusses the adaptation of Taylor's methods by his successors, as well as union opposition to scientific management.]


Scientific management was fashioned during the post-Civil War era, when business enterprises were expanding in size and scope, and...

(The entire section is 11033 words.)

Milton J. Nadworny (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "Frederick Taylor and Frank Gilbreth: Competition in Scientific Management," in Business History Review, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1957, pp. 23-34.

[In the following essay, Nadworny explains the antagonistic split in the scientific management movement between Taylorites, who favored a stop-watch method of measurement, and adherents to Frank Gilbreth's micromotion technique.]

A century has elapsed since the birth of Frederick W. Taylor, the so-called "Father of Scientific Management," and it has been almost seventy-five years since Taylor began to evolve his management system. Note has been taken, and will continue to be taken, of Taylor's contributions to...

(The entire section is 3975 words.)

L. Urwick and E. F. L. Brech (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "Frederick Winslow Taylor," in The Making of Scientific Management Volume I: Thirteen Pioneers, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd., 1959, pp. 28-38.

[In the following essay, Urwick and Brech discuss Taylor's life and work.]

Almost half a century after Charles Babbage, the mathematician and philosopher, observing British industry from without, had propounded the essential principles of the scientific approach to business management, F. W. Taylor, an American engineer, arrived at precisely similar conclusions as the hard-won prize of practical experience. There was no plagiarism in Taylor. He never read Babbage. His ideas were his own, wrung by sheer force of...

(The entire section is 3294 words.)

L. Urwick and E. F. L. Brech (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "The Acceptance of F. W. Taylor by British Industry (1895-1915)," in The Making of Scientific Management Volume II: Management of the British Industry, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd., 1959, pp. 88-107.

[In the following essay, Urwick and Brech discuss the application of scientific management in British industry, noting opposition to the movement that considered its principles "hideous" and "dehumanising."]

It is remarkable that F. W. Taylor, considered as a pioneer of scientific management, aroused comparatively little practical interest among contemporary British industrial circles, despite the fact that the period was one in which the engineers in this...

(The entire section is 6198 words.)

Hugh G. J. Aitken (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "The Taylor System," in Taylorism at Watertown Arsenal: Scientific Management in Action 1908-1915, Harvard University Press, 1960, pp. 13-48.

[In the following essay, Aitken provides a detailed analysis of Taylor's system.]

Questioned by Colonel Wheeler about his explanation of the molders' strike, John Frey admitted that workmen sometimes seemed to behave irrationally. "I know," he said, "the fiendish deviltry with which we throw down our things and go out on strike. They deliberately go in in the morning, and say 'Boys, we'll say "No" to this,' and then they take their time, putting away their things or not, and taking their time about things as they go out."...

(The entire section is 11636 words.)

Samuel Haber (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Efficiency and Uplift: Scientific Management in the Progressive Era 1890-1920, The University of Chicago Press, 1964, 181 p.

[In the following excerpt from his book Efficiency and Uplift, Haber examines Taylor's early leanings toward scientific management, including early events in his life that may have led to his later obsession with systematizing, and explains the practical application of Taylor's system in factories.]


At the summer meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 189S, a small, thin, pernickety engineer named Frederick Winslow Taylor read a paper entitled, "A...

(The entire section is 7996 words.)

Louis W. Fry (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "The Maligned F. W. Taylor: A Reply to His Many Critics," in The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 1, No. 3, July, 1976, pp. 124-129.

[In the following essay, Fry attempts to answer Taylor's critics, conceding that Taylor's means were not always desirable, but concluding that his goals were indispensible to modern organizational behavior theory.]

Frederick W. Taylor has been criticized and praised by theorists from various schools of organizational thought. Some say his view of man is too simplistic, as are his theories for solving the interaction of man with organization. Others state that he laid the very foundation for the vastly improved productivity of...

(The entire section is 2695 words.)

Peter F. Drucker (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "The Coming Rediscovery of Scientific Management," in Toward the Next Economics and Other Essays, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1981, pp. 96-106.

[In the following essay, originally published in The Conference Board Record in 1976, Drucker advocates the application of Taylor's principles to what Drucker calls "knowledge work. "]

Everybody "knows" the following "facts" about Frederick Winslow Taylor: His aim was "efficiency," which meant reducing costs and increasing profits. He believed that workers responded primarily to economic incentives. He invented the "speed-up" and the assembly line. He saw only the individual worker, and not the work group. He...

(The entire section is 3284 words.)

Edwin A. Locke (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "The Ideas of Frederick W. Taylor: An Evaluation," in The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, January, 1982, pp. 14-24.

[In the following essay, Locke defends Taylor's methods, maintaining that Taylor produced the "most objectively valid" theories in modem thought.]

Few management theorists have been more persistently criticized than has Frederick W. Taylor, the founder of scientific management, despite his being widely recognized as a key figure in the history of management thought (Wren, 1979). Taylor and scientific management frequently were attacked in his own lifetime, prompting, among other responses, Gilbreth's Primer (Gilbreth,...

(The entire section is 6754 words.)

Stephen Wood and John Kelly (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Taylorism, Responsible Autonomy and Management Strategy," in On Work: Historical, Comparative and Theoretical Approaches, edited by R. E. Paul, Basil Blackwell, 1988, pp. 173-89.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1982, Wood and Kelly argue in favor of a conservative reading and application of Taylor's method, keeping in mind that Taylor's principles may not be universally practical or desirable.]

A curious feature of much previous discussion of Braverman's Labor and Monopoly Capitalism (1974) has been a marked tendency to portray capitalist management as virtually omniscient. The implementation of management strategy is therefore...

(The entire section is 6904 words.)

Hindy Lauer Schachter (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Frederick Taylor and the Public Administration Community: A Reevaluation, State University of New York Press, 1989, 175 p.

[In the following excerpt from his book Frederick Taylor and the Public Administration Community, Schachter addresses the major points of Taylor's method as laid out in The Principles of Scientific Management and Shop Management and recounts the reaction to Taylor's ideas during his lifetime.]


Shop Management and The Principles of Scientific Management are the two works that embody Taylor's mature ideas on organizational improvement and...

(The entire section is 11848 words.)

Terry Mulcaire (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Progressive Visions of War in 'The Red Badge of Courage' and 'The Principles of Scientific Management'," in American Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 1, March, 1991, pp. 46-72.

[In the following essay, Mulcaire argues that Stephen Crane's depiction of war in The Red Badge of Courage as mechanical and systematic indicates the widespread acceptance at the end of the nineteenth century of Taylor's principles.]

As Henry Fleming turns his back on war at the end of The Red Badge of Courage (1895), Stephen Crane describes Henry's retreat with a biblical allusion that collapses the difference between war and peace. "He came from hot plowshares to prospects of...

(The entire section is 9283 words.)

George Will (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: "Faster Mousetrap," in The New York Times Book Review, June 15, 1997, p. 10.

[In the following essay, Will reviews The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency.]

In November 1910 some railroads were trying to prove, as it had recently become their burden to do, that they merited Federal permission for rate increases. Representing opponents was Louis Brandeis, the future Justice, who questioned railroad officials about their costs. Were new efficiencies in operations an alternative to rate increases? No, said the railroaders. How did they know? Brandeis asked. Trust us, they said.

But Brandeis was in no mood to trust...

(The entire section is 1694 words.)

Further Reading


Copley, Frank Barkley. Frederick W. Taylor: Father of Scientific Management Vol. 2. New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1923, 472 p.

Comprehensive biography of Taylor.

Kakar, Sudhir. Frederick Taylor: A Study in Personality and Innovation. Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press, 1970, 221 p.

Scholarly biography of Taylor and the development of his theories.

Kanigel, Robert. The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency. New York: Viking, 1997, 675 p.

Comprehensive biographical and theoretical study of Taylor.

Wrege, Charles...

(The entire section is 470 words.)